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Building Time-Shifted Audiences: Does Social TV Play a Role?

5 minute read | November 2014

Before social media, if you missed a live episode of the latest hit show, you’d feel left out of the conversation at the water cooler. In today’s instantaneous world of social media, however, you’re more likely to feel left out on Twitter. And that fear of missing out seems to be pushing people to catch up: New research from Nielsen found that earned social media ‘reminds’ people to watch an episode after the live airing.

It’s no secret that audiences today are using more than one screen while watching TV, and recent research from the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) and FOX, Viacom and other industry sources has explored the benefits of this activity, from inspiring audiences to start watching new shows to encouraging loyal viewers to watch programs live.

Time-shifted viewing has become increasingly important to networks and advertisers, with some networks seeing over 50% of their 18-34 aged viewership coming in the seven-day window after the live airing. In fact, several broadcast networks have stated their intentions to supplement daily overnight ratings with projections for their live “+7” audiences (i.e., the number of people who watch the show during the seven day period after the live airing).

To understand +7 viewership for any series’ episode, we evaluated 11 different variables across five categories—including measurements, as well as episode, program and network characteristics—to explore what factors contribute to viewers’ decisions to watch a show later in the week.  

Not surprisingly, the most important factor changing how many viewers watch later was an episode’s live audience tune in, accounting for 42% of variance in +7 TV audiences. So, just under half of the difference between the live and +7 audiences can be explained by the size of the original live audience. Conventional wisdom on several other variables also bore out. For example, reality series were 31% more likely to be watched live. A premiere episode, regardless of genre, was 15% more likely to be watched live.

Interestingly, all 11 variables tested proved to be statistically significant. In other words, all measurements and characteristics we looked at affect time-shifted viewing. In fact, this integrated model explains 72% of the variance in the +7 audience, significantly higher than what the live audience could explain alone. Moreover, Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings (NTTR) impressions were significant, even after accounting for the effect of the other 10 variables. Specifically, a 10% increase in NTTR impressions corresponded to a 1.8% increase in the +7 audience, indicating that social media activity around TV programming is playing a role in driving viewers to watch programming later in the week.

To further explore social media’s effect on time-shifted viewing, we isolated a set of shows that have the same exact characteristics (e.g., broadcast, non-Spanish, drama series, etc.) aside from audience size and NTTR impressions. Splitting each set of shows into two buckets, high and low social, we can compare each group’s delayed viewing relative to its live audience. For ‘high social’ shows, +7 audiences are 36% larger than live audiences while ‘low social’ shows’ +7 audiences are just 16% larger than live audiences. In other words, more social shows see a greater boost in time-shifted audiences than less social ones.

These analyses have two big implications for the industry. First, networks gain insight into their delayed audiences and how to grow them. Second, they help explain how much impact social media has on delayed TV viewing today.

“We are aware from our work with the ARF that exposure to TV Tweets drives consumers to take action,” said Judit Nagy, Vice President of Analytics, FOX. “And these recent findings further demonstrate an undiscovered opportunity in social word of mouth during and around live programming. For FOX programs, we see a relationship between ratings and a program’s social share of voice, demonstrating the potential for social conversation to generate and increase live +7 performance.”

“We all know that social media has value, but quantifying that still remains a mystery,” added Nagy. “These findings get us one step closer to fully understanding the relationship between social activity and TV ratings and enabling us to take better advantage of social media as a platform that can drive viewership.”

Networks can use these approaches to measure the impact of stronger social media investments (e.g., getting the program cast to engage audiences by Tweeting during live airings) on delayed viewing. They also encourage TV networks to create more sharable content (e.g., memes, short-form video, games, etc.). As social media becomes further ingrained in audiences’ TV viewing habits, these results will continue to improve our understanding of the social TV phenomenon and build additional, practical insights for networks and advertisers.


For the purposes of this research, earned social media was measured using Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings (NTTR), which measure the number of people posting Tweets about TV as well as the “audience” of people who actually see those Tweets. Specifically, the NTTR metric evaluated was Live +7 Twitter TV Impressions across demographic segments (13+), which measure the total number of times any Tweets about a TV episode were seen from when the Tweets were sent until the end of the broadcast day, seven days following air. Our dataset included over 5,000 primetime series first-run airings during the 2013-2014 TV season from 17 English and Spanish broadcast and cable networks. We evaluated the TV viewing behavior of the 18-34 aged segment, as it generally accounts for at least 40% of the Twitter TV activity for primetime series programming.

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